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On this day: Union army accepts Charleston’s surrender

On this day (Feb. 18) in 1865, Union Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig’s Division of William Tecumseh Sherman’s all-conquering army entered Charleston, S.C., and accepted its mayor’s formal surrender of what many Northerners considered “the proud birthplace of secession.”

Sherman, as commander of the Union’s 100,000-man Army of the Tennessee, had in mid-1864 embarked upon his march through “ the heart of the Confederacy.” Opposed by Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s 60,000-man, ill-equipped, psychologically-beaten Army of Tennessee, Sherman’s marauding army, traveling from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Atlanta, rather handily outmaneuvered and outfought Johnson and his increasingly beleaguered army.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis soon grew impatient with his commander’s ineffective Fabian delaying tactics and appointed Gen. John Bell Hood to replace the now discredited Johnson.

Forsaking Johnson’s Fabian tactics, Hood boldly attacked Sherman with disastrous results. Suffering irreplaceable heavy losses of men and equipment, Hood was forced to retreat into the Atlanta entrenchments. On Sept. 1, 1864, Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta, and Sherman occupied the city the next day.

From Atlanta, Sherman embarked, along a 60-mile-wide corridor, upon his now famous (infamous?) “march to the sea” to Savannah, which he occupied on Dec. 22. During the 285-mile trek through the “heart of Georgia,” Sherman’s four army corps were virtually unopposed.

Sherman’s 60,000 “blue avengers” were able to “forage liberally on the country” and to destroy everything in their way that would possibly be of military value to the Confederacy. Thus, most public buildings, factories, warehouses, bridges, cotton gins, railroads and more than a few private farms and plantations were systematically destroyed. Despite Sherman’s orders to the contrary, there also was a great deal of looting. From Savannah, Sherman sent his famous message to President Abraham Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.”

With his troops “burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” Sherman led his victorious army into that “birth place of the rebellion” on a march more destructive than the more famous “march to the sea” in Georgia.

A participating Union officer, after the war, wrote, “In Georgia, few houses were burned,” in S.C., “few escaped.”

On Feb. 17, Union forces captured and burned the state capital city of Columbia and, the following day, entered Charleston, where much of the city also was torched. Ever since, Southerners blamed the “blue bellies” for the burning of Charleston while Sherman steadfastly maintained that most of the fires were set by fleeing Confederate soldiers.

During his three marches through the heart of the Confederacy (i.e., Chattanooga to Atlanta, Atlanta to Savannah, and Savannah to Charleston), Sherman’s goals, with Lincoln and Union Army Commander Gen. Ulysses Grant’s reluctant approval, was two-fold: prove that the Confederacy was in fact, by late 1864, a beaten nation, which was totally unable to defend its heartland; and come north from Savannah through the Carolinas on Robert E. Lee’s rear to crush the Army of Northern Virginia and thereby bring the bloody conflict to a favorable conclusion.

That the Confederacy could hold out against increasingly heavy odds until April 1865 seems to confirm a time-honored adage that fighting an offensive war against a determined, well-led foe is more demanding of time, men, equipment and supplies than is fighting a purely defensive war.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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